Both english and western riding have their different activities, or disciplines. If you already know that you want to barrel race, or to jump, you've got a head start in knowing which way you will ride.
Being english myself, I've always been biased towards english riding. But as my knowledge has grown, I've learned that there's more to western riding than throwing a leg over the horse and hitting the trail.
For example, western riders can participate in western pleasure, barrel racing, roping and cutting, reining, competitive trail classes and more.
Western pleasure is a showing class in which horses are shown in a group in the arena, performing changes of gait and direction as requested by the judge. Horses are judged for their appearance, style and movement.
In barrel racing, horse and rider enter the arena at high speed and negotiate a pattern of three barrels, turning tightly around each barrel without going too wide (and wasting precious seconds, or cutting in too close and possibly knocking a barrel over and losing points. This is a speed sport and the fastest across the finish line wins.
In roping events, the rider follows a steer out of the chute, aims and throws the lasso while riding at speed. He then secures the lasso around the saddle horn and the specially trained horse comes to a quick halt to hold the steer. The rider quickly dismounts, grounds the steer and quickly ropes its legs. Another speed event, the quickest person to get his steer roped and raise his arms to signal to the judge that he has completed the task, wins.
Cutting takes a very special horse. In cutting events, horse and rider enter a group of cattle and single one out. The horse moves the steer away from the other cattle and then prevents it from moving back to the herd for a preset period of time. Since the steer is determined to join his herdmates, the horse will have to continually face the steer and anticipate which way it will go, moving himself quickly left and right to block escape.
In reining classes, horse and rider perform a preset pattern of movements, involving circles, spins, slides and turns. Reining has been called the "western dressage" and is always a crowd pleaser and each horse's performance is accompanied by whoops and hollers from the audience. Horses and riders are judged on the obedience of the horse to the riders aids and on accuracy.
In competitive trail classes, horses enter the arena separately and work through a series of obstacles, such as gates, patterns of poles which they must reverse through etc. The idea is to simulate in the show ring, such obstacles as may be found out on the trail. Horses are judged for their obedience to the rider's aids and the willingness with which they perform each task set them.
English riders can participate in dressage, hunter or jumper, combined training and more.
In dressage, horse and rider follow a set pattern of movements, including circles and straight lines, changes of pace and direction and, at the higher levels, lateral movements and collections and extensions of gait. They are judged on accuracy, the obedience and submission of the horse to his riders aids, correctness, straightness and presence. Dressage is often compared to western reining. Unfortunately, while it's fascinating challenge to do, dressage has gained a reputation as being a rather stuffy sport. This image probably isn't helped by the fact that, in the words of my esteemed father, it is, for the uninitiated at least, like watching cement set. Often the audience is asked to hold their applause, for fear of spooking the horses and each ride is performed in graveyard-like silence. Note from your Guide: if reining horses can perform to whoops and hollers without spooking, shouldn't dressage horses also be able to?
Hunter classes can be on the flat, or over fences. In Hunter under Saddle classes, the horses enter the arena as a group and perform the changes of gait and direction as requested by the judge. They are judged for their obedience to the rider's aids, their gaits and their elegance. They maintain an even head carriage and smooth, quiet paces throughout.
In hunter classes over fences, the horses are judged on style as they negotiate a course of jumps. They should maintain a steady, even gait, switching leads when appropriate and jumping the fences with style. In fact, style is the main criterion for judging in hunter classes over fences and a horse which, even though it clears the fences, dangles a foreleg, or puts in an extra stride in front of a fence, will be marked down.
In jumper classes, horses are judged on their ability to cleaning negotiate a series of fences. Style is not taken into account, so if your horse doesn't have the level head carriage and smooth, calm gait required for the hunters, but can jump anything you put in front of him, jumper classes may be where you'll shine.
Eventing, or combined training, has its roots in the military, where horses needed stamina, while also showing obedience to their rider and agility. Eventing includes dressage, cross country jumping and stadium jumping. Any type of horse can take part in eventing and so, horses that perhaps aren't fancy enough for showing or aren't elegant enough for hunter classes, can participate in eventing. At the very highest levels, eventing requires stamina, obedience and courage from the horse, to clear the very formidable fences on the cross country course, but at the lower levels, it's something everyone can enjoy just as much as a pleasant ride in the country.
Both english and western riders regularly hit the trails and compete in long distance, or endurance rides. Endurance rides are competed over a set distance, perhaps 25, 50 or 100 miles. Time must be taken to condition the horse for this event and care is taken at the events, to make sure that horses remain in good health throughout.
In England, many English riders participate in gymkhana events, which are various races and games on horseback. They have their roots in medieval jousting. Every summer show in England has a ring in which the gymkhana events are held and children of all ages hurtle up and down the ring grabbing potatoes balanced on buckets from the back of their pony, or snaking through a line of poles. Many Pony Clubs hold Mounted Game team competitions, culminating in the Prince Phillip Cup which is held annually at the Horse of the Year Show.
In the United States, gymkhana includes barrel racing, pole bending and flag races and participants are not limited to children.
Gymkhana of any type requires a horse or pony that has agility, speed and shows obedience to the rider, who may at any time be hanging off to one side reaching for something. However, no particular breed is required and horses are not judged on appearance or quality, so horses that aren't appropriate for showing in other disciplines can usually, with the right training, make the switch to mounted games or gymkhana.